The Tribune-Review sports staff is conducting a daily countdown of the best players in Pittsburgh pro and college sports history to wear each jersey number.
No. 29: Marc-Andre Fleury
To perhaps best illustrate Marc-Andre Fleury’s impact and enduring popularity in Pittsburgh, consider that during the 2017-18 season that followed the Pittsburgh Penguins’ most recent Stanley Cup championship, the most anticipated game for most fans wasn’t the banner-raising for the opener.
The hottest ticket wasn’t for the Stanley Cup Final rematch against the Nashville Predators. It wasn’t for any of the high-profile meetings against bitter rivals Washington or Philadelphia, either.
The home game that season many were looking forward to most was the one against the expansion team on a Tuesday night in February.
A member of three Penguins teams that claimed the Stanley Cup and the franchise career leader in regular-season and playoff wins and shutouts, Fleury was a unanimous choice of the Tribune-Review sports staff as the best athlete to wear No. 29 for a Pittsburgh pro or college team.
Coming off a pair of last-place finishes amidst dumping most the high-priced talent that had helped the Penguins extend a playoff streak to 11 seasons by 2001, the Penguins traded up two spots to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft. They selected a lanky and athletic French Canadian goalie, Fleury.
Fleury earned the start in the season opener 3 ½ months later. He became an instant star, making 46 saves – including a penalty shot – during a 3-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings that was emblematic of how outmanned the Penguins of that era were.
Just three seasons later, though, Fleury led the Penguins into the Stanley Cup Final, posting a 1.97 goals-against average throughout the playoffs. The next year, he backstopped them to a rematch with the Detroit Red Wings. This time, the Penguins won – and Fleury made the iconic save to seal it as time was expiring in Game 7.
Eighteen months after that, he earned the first of three All-Star game berths as a member of the Penguins and five overall. In 2016 and 2017 Fleury earned his second and third Stanley Cup rings – albeit while playing far less of the postseason than then-rookie Matt Murray.
It was Murray’s emergence as a 21-year-old early in the 2016 postseason that ultimately led to Fleury’s amicable departure from the Penguins. And while Fleury would become the face of the fledgling Golden Knights – helping them to the Stanley Cup Final during their first season of existence – it was his play while with the Penguins that most influenced Fleury’s selection as the NHL’s first-team goalie for the decade of the 2010’s.
At 35 and with two years remaining on his contract with Vegas, Fleury is well on track to become just the third goalie in NHL history to get to 500 wins. He’s fifth all-time with 466 now.
A worthy tribute to Marc-Andre Fleury pic.twitter.com/efIgsAUmle
— Yahoo Sports NHL (@YahooSportsNHL) February 7, 2018
Fluery’s impact was such that it’s not out of the question to think that No. 29 will be retired by the Penguins at some point in the future. Before Fleury’s arrival, it had been worn at least in part by plenty of other notable players (or those who later became prominent figures in franchise history) such as Jim Rutherford, Greg Millen, Phil Bourque, Markus Naslund, Tyler Wright and even Brooks Orpik (the latter of which only briefly until switching to No. 44).
Pittsburgh’s other prominent teams each had accomplished No. 29s of their own. None more so than Curtis Martin, a Taylor Allderdice graduate who had 2,643 rushing yards from 1991-94 at Pitt before embarking on an illustrious 12-year NFL career that would earn him induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Steelers’ record-holder for most rushing yards in a season isn’t held by a Hall of Famer such as Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis or John Henry Johnson – it was Barry Foster, whose 1992 season while donning No. 29 featured 1,690 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns and a first-team All Pro designation. But Foster’s final NFL game was played at age 26 in 1994.
Rick Rhoden spent parts of eight seasons with the Pirates and ranks 11th in strikeouts in franchise history with 862. An All-star while going 15-12 with a 2.84 ERA for a 98-loss team in 1986, Rhoden went sent to the Yankees that November as part of a six-player trade that netted the Pirates future Cy Young winner Doug Drabek.
Check out the entire ’Burgh’s Best to Wear It series here.
Keep up with the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .